STATE OF THE STATE
Lawmakers, DOE contradict Lingle's assertion on school funds
The Gov. claims that $550 million to fix up schools has been sitting idle
Gov. Linda Lingle said yesterday the Department of Education cannot expect a "blank check" for school repair needs until it produces results from previously appropriated funds, a rationale that has Democrats and the DOE crying foul.
In her State of the State address yesterday, Lingle said the DOE still has not spent more than $550 million set aside for repair and maintenance over the past three years.
"Before we give the DOE a blank check, we must be certain we are getting our money's worth," she said.
Republican leaders have made similar statements in recent days, suggesting the DOE is sitting on the earlier money when it could be spent on reducing the state's $525 million school repair and maintenance backlog.
In a letter to newspapers, Superintendent Pat Hamamoto said that is not the case.
The nearly $600 million appropriated earlier is for older projects. The $525 million backlog, meanwhile, represents a list of repair needs for which money has not yet been appropriated.
Moreover, of $557 million appropriated in the past three years for the older projects, only $344 million had been released by Lingle as of Dec. 31, Hamamoto said.
Of the released money, $195 million has been spent or earmarked for specific projects. An additional $75 million will be earmarked by the end of the current fiscal year, and the final $74 million by the middle of 2008.
"To say this money has gone untouched is just inaccurate," said DOE spokesman Greg Knudsen.
Sen. Norman Sakamoto (D, Salt Lake-Foster Village) said he and the DOE had attempted to explain all this since last week.
"Either the governor wasn't listening or she hopes that by saying it over and over, it will become fact," said Sakamoto, chairman of the Committee on Education and Military Affairs.
In addition, the department is still waiting for Lingle to release the final $213 million appropriated earlier.
"The governor is sitting on $213 million for whatever reason," Sakamoto said.
In a later news conference, Lingle denied withholding money from the DOE, but said "we have a very thorough process" for evaluating budget requests.
However, Knudsen said tens of millions of the previously allocated dollars will expire by the middle of 2006 if not released and earmarked by then.
Lingle is asking the current Legislature to approve $90 million in new money toward the backlog.
The DOE is asking for $260 million.
"Without this funding, the backlog will likely grow, and the public demand for improving the learning environment at our public schools will remain unfulfilled," Hamamoto's letter said.
Rep. Roy Takumi (D, Pearl City-Pacific Palisades), who chairs the House Education Committee, said he was drafting legislation that would set aside $150 million in new money for repair and maintenance.
Sakamoto said legislators might have to call a special informational hearing to clarify the apparent confusion surrounding the budget numbers.
One of Lingle's education proposals calls for setting up a nonpartisan 27-member commission to help devise a system to make DOE budgeting and expenditures more transparent.